February 20, 2015

Strive to protect

UCPD must improve transparency and objectivity to become a more equitable and effective police force.

It is becoming more evident throughout the nation that safe, equitable, and legal policing practices require transparency of information and sincere regard for community. The University of Chicago is now operating with significantly expanded police powers and policing an area of the city far larger than its immediate campus. Because of this expansion, the Citizens Action Committee for Fair University of Chicago Policing is focusing attention on the public safety needs and interests of the larger community beyond the campus.

As the University is a private institution, they are not bound by the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). They have the same powers of the Chicago Police Department (CPD), without the accountability. It is important to recognize that the University of Chicago Police Department, although a private institution, is performing an essential governmental function—law enforcement. In this role, the UCPD should be subject to the same standards of transparency as the governmental agency (CPD) from which it derives its powers. This would, of course, include the obligation to conform to FOIA requirements, as well as the other obligations that apply to the CPD.

A former Chief of the University Police stated in a recent public forum that the obligation of a police force is to respond to the needs of the community it serves. The University’s need to attract students and faculty can be an incentive to suppress information about crime. Sometimes, this puts their private and legitimate interests in conflict with the safety interests of the larger community. This creates a dilemma that must be faced by both the University and the community. The University of Chicago, along with many prominent universities in the country, has a history of suppressing information about rape in the community—even when information about current crime patterns can be used to prevent future rapes. Moreover, statistics regarding crime can be presented in ways that make those statistics reflect a more positive picture than the reality. For example, police departments have been known to call rape “home invasion” and the classification of homicide can be slippery as in a case that was first labeled homicide “by unspecified means” which morphed into a final classification of a “noncriminal death investigation.”

Now that the University is assuming the obligation to protect the community from crime and to maintain public safety, we, as a community, should expect that:

• The UCPD must put aside the University’s private interests and make the safety of the entire community their primary obligation.

• The UCPD must fully disseminate information about ALL current crime patterns throughout the neighborhood. And, for the sake of prevention, this information must be disseminated in a timely manner.

• The UCPD must commit to keeping statistics that accurately reflect the nature of crimes committed in their area without giving into the temptation to mislead the public.

Open and objective dissemination of information about crimes, accurate and timely publication of crime statistics, and FOIA compliance are essential to maintain safe, equitable, and legal policing for the entire community. If the University and the UCPD do not commit to all of this, how can we have confidence in them as our police force?

Nina Helstein is an alum of the University and received her B.A. in history in 1964 and her Ph.D. from SSA in 1995.